I recently attended a professional development entitled “Empathy, EQUITY, and Excellence; Inviting Diverse Perspectives on Repertoire and Responsiveness”. My immediate reaction to any workshop on equity is one filled with hesitation, caution, and skepticism – especially because of how loaded the term “equity” can be, and how often it unfortunately can be misused (especially when equity is interchangeably used with equality). I quickly felt grateful, however, for a person of color as a keynote speaker – especially having sat through so many workshops where a white person would colorfully use the buzzwords of “equity,” “equality,” “diversity”, “justice”, and “inclusion” (to just name a few) to almost fill their quota of saying the words loud and proud.
Keynote speaker Dr. Danielle A. Brown, founder of My People Tell Stories, helped me feel less apprehensive upon defining equity, diversity, and inclusion as separate entities that must cohesively exist in our teaching. Dr. Brown then continued to discuss a concept of “universality” – specifically universality and the music educator:
“There are two ways that the concept of universality will work against you as a music educator:
- you believe in the concept that ‘music is universal’
- you believe that you have overcome the ‘music is universal’ concept
I felt guilty right away. I have definitely uttered those words “music is universal” with nothing but good intent that we could all “speak the language of music” – but good intentions are not good enough, and I know that good intentions do not mean the actions are free from harm or wrongdoing. Then this slide came up on the screen:
“Universality of Dominant Culture
Be careful that your use of the word ‘universal’ is not merely a euphemism for ‘superior’ or dominant culture.”
My mind was blown! Music was and is not universal. Music is not universally understood, and how music functions in each community, culture, and society varies. It made sense, but I could only focus on the number of times I have personally labeled the music I have taught as being “a way for all people to communicate”, even though I do not represent all people, all cultures, all ideas.
When our workshop separated into smaller group work with fellow educators, we were first asked to create playlists that represented our own identities. That seemed fine, harmless even because we were speaking our individual selves ONLY.
It was as if I was almost waiting to be triggered in this work when we were then tasked with creating playlists of repertoire selections. After putting up my selections of “Beautiful” by Christina Aguilera (for legato, tone, and self-empowerment), “Own It” by Black Eyed Peas (for harmony, articulation changes, and self empowerment), and “Duke’s Place” by Duke Ellington (for unison playing, and jazz to be included in the traditional orchestra setting), the following selections came up for me to write on our chart paper from my fellow orchestra teachers:
- “African Adventure” by Robert Sheldon with this description:
“When it comes time to celebrate the musical colors of Africa, combine forces with your string group and percussion ensemble on this stylish concert work for the developing ensemble. Repetitive rhythms and a catchy melodic hook propel the piece forward as it develops momentum and dramatic flair. Substitute Orff instruments for the melodic percussion for an even more authentic timbre. A guaranteed favorite!” (J.W. Pepper).
- “Hanukkah Habenera by Tim McCarrick:
“‘Carmen’ meets Hanukkah in this remarkably clever combination of The Dreidel Song; Hanukkah, O Hanukkah and Bizet’s famous Habanera from his most famous opera! It all works amazingly well, with shifts from minor to major, a seamless bass line, and lots of tongue-in-cheek humor! What a hoot! Highly recommended! (J.W. Pepper).
- “Dragon Dance” by Michael Story:
“Celebrate the Chinese New Year in style with this original tune, and be ready for cross-curricular study. Close your eyes as you listen and you will see the performers, carrying the paper dragon on poles, fluidly mimicking its movement.” (J.W. Pepper).
I could feel my hand begrudgingly writing these especially horrid selections up, as if there was some permanence and upholding of the racist status quo that I committed by even charting them up. It seemed as though my fellow orchestra teachers felt proud of their answers, and “inclusion” of repertoire they believed to be representative of their students.
Dr. Brown warned,
“Don’t assume students will always identify with their cultural heritage.” (Brown, 2019).
Is it really “inclusion” if each piece was written by a white man?
It is really “diversity” if the only allusion made to culture was in the title and then peppered into the description as if it were seasoning on a dish?
What killed me the most, though, was when one teacher eagerly stated,
“I teach ‘Dragon Dance’ because I think my Chinese kids like it.”
There’s nothing like something hitting you personally, and that hit me really hard. If I was that Chinese kid in your class, did you even ask me? Did you even find out more about what dragons symbolize in my culture? Did you ask me if I, or my Chinese peers, identified with Chinese culture? Did you even WANT to know all these things, or were you just giving yourself a pat on your back for being “inclusive”?
I grappled with this catastrophe – of teachers who lived under this false pretense of “doing good”, perhaps even with that good intention, but actually perpetuating harm to their students. I wanted so very badly in that moment to speak out, but felt so silenced by the overpowering whiteness that permeated in that room which would have made me out to be “that one girl of color who is a young teacher and just angry.” (And yes, I say girl because unfortunately my word often continues to be degraded due to my age). Yet, I myself have been that person who at first “taught hip hop” because I thought black kids could “relate” to it – without even asking. Who was I to say that someone was wrong? Who am I to SPEAK OUT?
At the end of this small group work, I could only bring myself to cross out that line I charted that “Dragon Dance” was
“representative of Chinese kids”. I re-wrote:
“representative” of Chinese kids.
I continue to wonder what would have been the right move in that moment. I can’t help but feel simultaneously guilty to have upheld the status quo, but also continue to feel protective of who I am and what I share, and my own growth in understanding this important, necessary work.
To my fellow music educators, and educators at large – consider the following as a first step:
- Ask. Ask your students first about who they are, what they identify with, and what they perceive to be part of their identifiers. It isn’t always race, ethnicity, and gender, and don’t assume their answers because it is DANGEROUS to assume. Perhaps more importantly, listen to what your students say. Don’t just ask for the sake of asking.
After all of this, I could only conclude that music really isn’t universal. Do not blanket what you perceive to be music that is cultural OVER me as if it is some protective shield through which we can connect under.